Up until a few years ago, Chile’s Central Valley was center stage, with cabernet sauvignon playing the starring role.
Carmenere, which was brought from Bordeaux to Chile in the 19th century, is somewhat popular, but vegetal qualities give it a limited appeal and prevent it from taking off the way malbec did in Argentina.
Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay have dominated the white wine scene, yet neither offers unique qualities nor much excitement. However, that is changing as the northwest coast has become one of the hottest wine areas in South America — precisely because it is actually one of the coolest for white wine production.
The daytime temperatures never get too scorching, and in the evening they drop even more. This is good not only for many white grapes but some reds as well, such as pinot noir.
The Casablanca Valley was the first coastal region to make a good case for white wine varietals, starting with plantings in the 1980s, but the San Antonio Valley just south jumped on board soon after.
The Limari Valley has been developing for a while, and its potential is greater than initially realized.
“The rock is weathered so roots go down and you can explore the whole limestone profile,” Felipe Müller, chief winemaker and managing director of Tabali, said of the landscape. Tabali makes several wines from the Limari Valley.
Given the cost of land in these highly coveted areas, the wines are often a bit pricier than a lot of Central Valley wines.
However, there are good buys to be found. Here are three:
William Cole Sauvignon Blanc, Albamar, 2012 (Casablanca Valley): William Cole makes wines at several levels — all with attention to detail. Albamar may be the entry-level brand, but the fruit comes from prime real estate in the Casablanca Valley and harvesting is done by hand. Stainless-steel fermented, it is crisp and clean with mellow peach, pink grapefruit and melon flavors against a nervy backbone of minerality and acidity. Suggested retail: $12
Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc, Medalla Real Gran Reserva, 2012 (Leyda Valley, Chile): Santa Rita is a huge company and it has numerous brands ranging from overpriced and mediocre to very inexpensive and not much better. That said, the Medalla Real line, which is kind of in the middle, is always reliable. Over the years, I’ve found sauvignon blanc to be the one grape that Santa Rita seems to do pretty well. Without tasting like canned fruit, this floral wine is packed with stone fruits enhanced by lively acidity, yet it is still fairly gentle on the palate. Suggested retail: $15
Tabali Sauvignon Blanc, Talinay, Coastal Limestone Vineyard, 2011 (Limari Valley, Chile): Now 20 years old, Tabali has become a leading proponent of wines from the Limari Valley. Its Talinay wines are from chalky, limestone vineyards right on the coast. While all three are notable — a pinot noir and chardonnay are made as well — the sauvignon blanc is the star, exuding the limestone content of its soil. Full-bodied and crisp with lime, grapefruit and lilies, it challenges other Chilean producers to raise the bar. Even at $19, this wine is a steal. Suggested retail: $19
These wines can be found through Ashbury Market, Draeger’s, Falletti Foods, JJ Buckley Fine Wines, K&L Wine Merchants, Plumpjack Wines, Prestige Wine and Spirits and Wine.com.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.